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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 8709

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Dinner at the Ambassador's-Opera-Disaster of Byron at Malta-Mrs Spencer Smith

I shall always remember Cagliari with particular pleasure; for it so happened that I formed there three of the most agreeable acquaintances of my life, and one of them was with Lord Byron; for although we had been eight days together, I yet could not previously have accounted myself acquainted with his Lordship.

After dinner, we all went to the theatre, which was that evening, on account of some Court festival, brilliantly illuminated. The Royal Family were present, and the opera was performed with more taste and execution than I had expected to meet with in so remote a place, and under the restrictions which rendered the intercourse with the Continent then so difficult. Among other remarkable characters pointed out to us was a nobleman in the pit, actually under the ban of outlawry for murder. I have often wondered if the incident had any effect on the creation of Lara; for we know not in what small germs the conceptions of genius originate.

But the most important occurrence of that evening arose from a delicate observance of etiquette on the part of the ambassador. After carrying us to his box, which was close to that of the Royal Family, in order that we might see the members of it properly, he retired with Lord Byron to another box, an inflection of manners to propriety in the best possible taste-for the ambassador was doubtless aware that his Lordship's rank would be known to the audience, and I conceive that this little arrangement was adopted to make his person also known, by showing him with distinction apart from the other strangers.

When the performance was over, Mr Hill came down with Lord Byron to the gate of the upper town, where his Lordship, as we were taking leave, thanked him with more elocution than was precisely requisite. The style and formality of the speech amused Mr Hobhouse, as well as others; and, when the minister retired, he began to rally his Lordship on the subject. But Byron really fancied that he had acquitted himself with grace and dignity, and took the jocularity of his friend amiss-a little banter ensued-the poet became petulant, and Mr Hobhouse walked on; while Byron, on account of his lameness, and the roughness of the pavement, took hold of my arm, appealing to me, if he could have said less, after the kind and hospitable treatment we had all received. Of course, though I thought pretty much as Mr Hobhouse did, I could not do otherwise than civilly assent, especially as his Lordship's comfort, at the moment, seemed in some degree dependent on being confirmed in the good opinion he was desirous to entertain of his own courtesy. From that night I evidently rose in his good graces; and, as he was always most agreeable and interesting when familiar, it was worth my while to advance, but by cautious circumvallations, into his intimacy; for his uncertain temper made his favour precarious.

The next morning, either owing to the relaxation of his abstinence, which he could not probably well avoid amid the good things of the ambassadorial table; or, what was, perhaps, less questionable, some regret for his petulance towards his friend, he was indisposed, and did not make his appearance till late in the evening. I rather suspect, though there was no evidence of the fact, that Hobhouse received any concession which he may have made with indulgence; for he remarked to me, in a tone that implied both forbearance and generosity of regard, that it was necessary to humour him like a child. But, in whatever manner the reconciliation was accomplished, the passengers partook of the blessings of the peace. Byron, during the following day, as we were sailing along the picturesque shores of Sicily, was in the highest spirits overflowing with glee, and sparkling with quaint sentences. The champagne was uncorked and in the finest condition.

Having landed the mail at Girgenti, we stretched over to Malta, where we arrived about noon next day-all the passengers, except Orestes and Pylades, being eager to land, went on shore with the captain. They remained behind for a reason-which an accidental expression of Byron let out-much to my secret amusement; for I was aware they would be disappointed, and the anticipation was relishing. They expected-at least he did-a salute fro

m the batteries, and sent ashore notice to Sir Alexander Ball, the Governor, of his arrival; but the guns were sulky, and evinced no respect of persons; so that late in the afternoon, about the heel of the evening, the two magnates were obliged to come on shore, and slip into the city unnoticed and unknown.

At this time Malta was in great prosperity. Her commerce was flourishing; and the goodly clusters of its profits hung ripe and rich at every door. The merchants were truly hospitable, and few more so than Mr Chabot. As I had letters to him, he invited me to dinner, along with several other friends previously engaged. In the cool of the evening, as we were sitting at our wine, Lord Byron and Mr Hobhouse were announced. His Lordship was in better spirits than I had ever seen him. His appearance showed, as he entered the room, that they had met with some adventure, and he chuckled with an inward sense of enjoyment, not altogether without spleen-a kind of malicious satisfaction-as his companion recounted with all becoming gravity their woes and sufferings, as an apology for begging a bed and morsel for the night. God forgive me! but I partook of Byron's levity at the idea of personages so consequential wandering destitute in the streets, seeking for lodgings, as it were, from door to door, and rejected at all.

Next day, however, they were accommodated by the Governor with an agreeable house in the upper part of Valetta; and his Lordship, as soon as they were domiciled, began to take lessons in Arabic from a monk-I believe one of the librarians of the public library. His whole time was not, however, devoted to study; for he formed an acquaintance with Mrs Spencer Smith, the lady of the gentleman of that name, who had been our resident minister at Constantinople: he affected a passion for her; but it was only Platonic. She, however, beguiled him of his valuable yellow diamond ring. She is the Florence of Childe Harold, and merited the poetical embalmment, or rather the amber immortalisation, she possesses there-being herself a heroine. There was no exaggeration in saying that many incidents of her life would appear improbable in fiction. Her adventures with the Marquis de Salvo form one of the prettiest romances in the Italian language; everything in her destiny was touched with adventure: nor was it the least of her claims to sympathy that she had incurred the special enmity of Napoleon.

After remaining about three weeks at Malta, Byron embarked with his friend in a brig of war, appointed to convoy a fleet of small merchantmen to Prevesa. I had, about a fortnight before, passed over with the packet on her return from Messina to Girgenti, and did not fall in with them again till the following spring, when we met at Athens. In the meantime, besides his Platonic dalliance with Mrs Spencer Smith, Byron had involved himself in a quarrel with an officer; but it was satisfactorily settled.

His residence at Malta did not greatly interest him. The story of its chivalrous masters made no impression on his imagination-none that appears in his works-but it is not the less probable that the remembrance of the place itself occupied a deep niche in his bosom: for I have remarked, that he had a voluntary power of forgetfulness, which, on more than one occasion, struck me as singular: and I am led in consequence to think, that something unpleasant, connected with this quarrel, may have been the cause of his suppression of all direct allusion to the island. It was impossible that his imagination could avoid the impulses of the spirit which haunts the walls and ramparts of Malta; and the silence of his muse on a topic so rich in romance, and so well calculated to awaken associations concerning the knights, in unison with the ruminations of Childe Harold, persuades me that there must have been some specific cause for the omission. If it were nothing in the duel, I should be inclined to say, notwithstanding the seeming improbability of the notion, that it was owing to some curious modification of vindictive spite. It might not be that Malta should receive no celebrity from his pen; but assuredly he had met with something there which made him resolute to forget the place. The question as to what it was, he never answered the result would throw light into the labyrinths of his character.

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